I’m still relatively new to graphic novels, but over the last year I’ve had my preconceptions about them completely overturned. This is no exception, The Return of the Honey Buzzard is in no way a simple story, but a deep and emotionally charged one. Aimée de Jongh, the author and illustrator, has already been very successful. She has a daily comic series in the Dutch Metro newspaper, won the Prix Saint-Michel (a comic prize) and at age 17, had already self-published her first comic book. This is her first graphic novel, released in her native Dutch in 2014. It has been translated into French and Spanish, and this year into English. Her newspaper series is comedic and I’d recommend looking it up online, each comic is short and easy to read if you can understand Dutch (and you can understand a lot of the jokes even if you don’t!) It’s fantastic to see de Jongh’s range displayed in this compelling and moving story.
I could talk for a very long time about how enjoyable de Jongh’s illustrations are to look at. They match the tone and add to the atmosphere of the story — it’s an immersive experience. At some points there are pages and pages with little or no dialogue, yet with de Jongh’s beautiful illustrations they don’t feel ‘silent’. The action is dynamic and as with most graphic novels, there is a temptation to rush and read it all very quickly. Trust me, it’s important to slow down. Alongside the story there are panels that are set aside showing birds, trees and insects. These provide a break in the action, a moment of quiet after the more intense scenes. The story is set partly in wintertime, and the black rain and slushy snow add to the melancholy mood. Contrast in general is very important in the novel. Flash back scenes to the young protagonist and his childhood friend, show the two boys as Ying and Yang, one with dark hair and light clothes, the other his opposite. De Jongh uses negative space to her advantage, throwing a spotlight onto characters and focusing their line of sight. Small things like this are a testament to de Jongh’s skills, the way emotions — fear, sadness and hope — are portrayed is immensely affecting.
For all its vivid emotion, this is a familiar story. The recognisable elements — the bullied boy becoming the bully, the young student catching the eye of an older man, a son’s reluctance to take over, but then to give up the business his father left him— feel a little over played. It can feel like rereading an old story, but coupled with de Jongh’s artistry you don’t feel like you’re being cheated. It feels different and in the end it is different. Another satisfying thing about the story is that is feels complete. It’s short enough to read in an hour, but is long enough to have a proper storyline. De Jongh could have left annoying loose ends but doesn’t.
It’s a rewarding read and the plot raises uncomfortable questions about responsibility and guilt. After I’d finished, I found myself flicking back through the book, stopping on some of the most striking images. The relationship between the story and the illustration creates a novel full of high tension, proving de Jongh’s story writing skills match her illustrating credentials.